The number 417 is more crowded than usual this morning. I move down the aisle, then flop down as the bus lurches forwards. The raised seat over the rear wheels is a bit lean on legroom but it is good for people watching. I like to guess people’s professions as they board the bus. Actor or accountant? Social worker or salesperson? I will never find out, of course. But that’s not the point.
All of a sudden, I am old in the official sense of the word. State pension, free bus pass, concessions. The last time I felt like this was when I hit middle age; that period when women become invisible. But I don’t feel any different: no twinges, no memory loss, no thinning hair. Old, to me, is having to put an extra cushion on your chair seat so that you can get up more easily. Old is having to swap aerobics for yoga. Old is fumbling in your purse at the checkout while the queue builds up behind you, tutting and sighing.
To be honest, I am bored and more than a little lonely. I signed up to become a Samaritan when I first retired, but because of the pandemic, all the training was put on hold. I made a timetable to justify getting out of bed. Eight-thirty every morning I catch the bus to watch the moving tableau of life, and maybe get the opportunity to chat from time to time. Sometimes I stay on the bus for a whole morning, passing schools with parents fussing at the gates and blocking the roads with their oversized SUVs; the canal, both banks lined with narrowboats highly decorated in primary colours; the park with its wide avenues of ash trees (no evidence of dieback yet); and the traditional outdoor market – shabby but still worth a visit for bargain fruit and veg and the comfort of a Cockney accent.
A bunch of schoolkids piles in, ties askew, shirts hanging out, heading for the back seats so that they can put their bags down and feet up. I catch the adolescent smell of sweat and schoolrooms as they pass, their nonsensical chatter sounding like a cacophony of parrots, and I’m a teenager again, desperate for acceptance within the group. A youth gets on and slinks along the aisle, his progress hampered by skinny jeans with the crotch around his knees. How young people keep their trainers so pristine is one of the mysteries of modern life. Then an elderly couple, he shuffling, she stooping, wave their bus passes unnecessarily at the driver, arms wrapped around each other for support like parcel tape as they totter towards the disabled seats. A young mother is sitting there, mouthing off into her mobile, her over-engineered buggy stuffed with so much paraphernalia that it is difficult to see whether an actual baby is inside.
I filter out the steady stream of expletives from the school kids – the taboo words which pepper their everyday chatter have ceased to shock me. What would my parents think if they were still alive? I remember my punishment for saying ‘bloody’ once. I never said it again.
As the young mum moves down the bus I can’t help eavesdropping on her conversation.
‘…can’t kick him out, but … on my way there now, but he might’ve already... No, I doubt it, they don’t know what he’s like. What if he…? OK. If you don’t hear from me by….’
My mother called me a sensitive soul. I was always bringing home ‘stray’ cats and dogs or injured birds. My teachers and parents envisaged a career as a nurse or a vet, but I knew that I didn’t have the emotional strength to deal with that sort of thing. Maybe joining the Samaritans wouldn’t be such a good idea, after all.
As I watch the girl dabbing at her eyes, trying not to smudge her over mascara-ed eyelashes, I could smell her desperation, and I wanted to help.
Several stops later, the young mum manoeuvres her buggy towards the exit. I leap up and scramble after her.
Kayleigh is blowing her nose into a tissue that is as soggy as papier-maché. She doesn’t call me a nosey old cow, which was a start. Proffering a fresh tissue, I walk with her to the park and we sit down on a splintery bench. It is etched with declarations of ardour and angst: Julie loves Ken, I shagged Destiny, Hayley is hot, F*** off Brian, Fiona and Mike forever.
As I delve into my bag for more tissues, I also delve deep inside myself for something appropriate to say, but no words will come. Instead, my gaze falls on a skitter of sparrows and a robin hovering timorously around my feet, hoping in vain for some discarded crumbs. They look like fearful fledglings that have just flown the nest – still fluffy around the edges, still learning.
Kayleigh is a fledgling, too. Dry, frizzy, overbleached hair pulled back fiercely into a tight ponytail; skin as greasy and puffy as a piece of KFC chicken; solid black Kardashian eyebrows; eyelashes as thick as yard brushes.
Eventually, Kayleigh speaks. She pours out her soul like water flows from a tap. Her words need somewhere to go, so I listen, absorbing them like blotting paper.
‘Jake – my boyfriend – does drugs, I’m so scared of him, he beats me up and I’m terrified he’ll hurt the baby one day, I want to leave but I’ve nowhere to go, he keeps all the money, my mum has disowned me and my friends avoid me because of him, I leave the flat every morning and spend the day pushing the buggy around just to keep out of his way until I have to go home.’
‘Why don’t you leave him?’ I ask. I already know the answer.
I could feel Kayleigh’s inner shrug.
‘If I alert the authorities, they’ll take my baby into care.’
Of course they will. Kayleigh needs help.
We head back to my house where I give her bowlful of home made macaroni cheese (last night’s leftovers, always better the next day). Jake has flogged their laptop so I do some quick research and come across the details of a group called Women’s Aid. They are available 24/7 for an online chat.
After the call, Kayleigh’s eyes are twinkling like the lights on a Christmas tree. They have offered her some temporary accommodation in a mother and baby shelter in a different town.
Can Kayleigh go through with it? I know all about coercive control: how a victim of domestic abuse experiences fear, isolation and worthlessness. I know that unless I see this through, supporting Kayleigh physically and mentally, she will not be able to make her escape.
Later that day, we head to the high-rise Kayleigh calls home. The plan is for Kayleigh to collect her stuff and leave Jake forever. The evening is best, Kayleigh says, as Jake is more likely to be fixated on his next dose of nose candy than picking a fight.
I stand just inside their front door, clenching my fists tightly inside my coat pockets, my apprehension growing like a rolling snowball. We may need to make a quick escape. But Kayleigh was right. Jake, disbelief and white powder smeared across his face in equal measures, is shocked into a stupor of inaction. Kayleigh, emboldened by my presence, scoops up her and the baby’s meagre belongings, then bowls the keys to the flat at him as though he is a set of cricket stumps.
She is free.
I feel a rush of relief as I stuff a tenner and a contact number into Kayleigh’s hands. Where she is going there will be a room and a comfortable bed waiting, supportive staff and the opportunity to make new friends.
‘Why did you want to help me?’ she says, as I wrap my arms around her before she leaves. Little does she know how much she has helped me.
I respond with a silent, Mona Lisa smile. Sometimes I close my eyes and summon him. His touch, his smell, his voice. I was a heartbeat away from telling her my story. I haven’t told anyone yet. Maybe I never will.
On the bus home, a teenager flops down next to me. Music escapes from his headphones at full volume:
‘The reason for life is to live with a purpose, Now I’ve escaped from a life that was worthless.’
It may not be the end of the story, but it is the beginning of a new chapter.